Everyone in my neighborhood in Boston—not just the narcs and NIMBYs on my local NextDoor—is convinced they’re hearing way more fireworks this year. It turns out we’re not imagining it: Boston police recorded 1,445 fireworks complaints in the first week of June, compared with just 22 in the same week last year, the Boston Herald reported last week. This seems to have started when the weather began warming up—complaints in May were also up by more than 2,300 percent compared with May 2019—and it’ll only continue as we near a July 4 in which organized fireworks displays are yet another casualty of this semi-reopened pandemic summer.
To go by the complaints cities are registering, it appears way more people are spending their free time dabbling with pyrotechnics this year. The mayor of Syracuse, New York, vowed action after a rash of 911 calls about fireworks last Tuesday night, and Syracuse police claim a 335 percent increase in fireworks complaints since the beginning of the year. Looking at New York City’s 311 data, I calculated a 920 percent year-over-year increase in fireworks complaints for the month of May. (The city made it easier to submit these complaints last June, when it began accepting reports online—but that by itself doesn’t appear to explain the May increase. The NYPD did not respond to a request for further comment.) More anecdotally, in Baltimore, “longtime residents” say individual fireworks use is noticeably more prevalent this year. In other parts of the country, Facebook and Twitter are full of complaints that it’s the worst year ever. As my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley put it:
It’s true that Americans always complain more about fireworks in the run-up to July 4. And a pandemic alone can’t explain why Americans are generally setting off more explosives than they used to; we can also thank a liberalization of laws in a slew of states over the past two decades. These factors make it challenging to establish just how extraordinary 2020 is in terms of DIY fireworks displays and whether the apparent boom (sorry) is a local or national phenomenon.
Less in doubt, though, is that consumer fireworks sales are up. A spokesperson for the National Fireworks Association confirmed to me that the organization is hearing reports of increased sales from across the industry. In an industry roundtable event on June 3, American Pyrotechnics Association executive director Julie Heckman said that they’re now anticipating “a banner year” for consumer sales. William Weimer, vice president and general counsel of Phantom Fireworks, a large national retailer, estimated that his company’s sales are up 15 percent across the country, most notably in the Northern states. July 4 falls on a Saturday this year, timing that has historically been associated with higher sales. But even after accounting for that, Phantom’s sales are much higher than expected. Weimer, who lives in Youngstown, Ohio, also told me, “What’s most surprising to me is that they’re also using them earlier.” I asked him how he knew that. “The same as you,” he said. “I hear more in my neighborhood.”
Both the people who are selling explosives and the government officials who are complaining about them agree that the pandemic is probably what lies behind their respective stories. “I think people are home,” Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said last Wednesday, when asked what might be driving the increase in complaints. Can’t see a movie or dine out? Why not explode some things? Several industry-side representatives offered similar explanations to me. They also suggested that the widespread cancellation of July 4 festivities, along with the cancellation of sporting events and music festivals, has left all of us craving our fireworks fix. “I think the general public, due to COVID, is just itching to do something,” Heckman said.
Apart from boredom, it seems possible that the pandemic is causing supply-side dynamics that are contributing in their own way to an increase in sales and usage. Professional fireworks display companies, the kind that produce the shows you see at ballparks, festivals, and Disney World, make at least 75 percent of their annual revenue from July 4 shows, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. This year, that display business has been devastated. Some of the display companies also operate retail stores, so by pivoting their focus and resources to retail sales, they can try to mitigate their losses. Though the law doesn’t allow consumers to buy professional-grade fireworks, it does allow for the sale of some nonetheless powerful explosives, the kind that in another year may have been used by a display company at, say, a corporate picnic.
And certain public health precautions that fireworks stores, like other retailers, have adopted may have some downstream impact on sales and usage. Firework sales tend to peak in the days prior to July 4, sometimes resulting in long lines for retailers like Phantom Fireworks. Because Phantom is currently limiting the number of customers who can be in a store at one time, the company is concerned it won’t be able to accommodate as many last-minute shoppers. That’s led Phantom to offer early-bird discounts to get more of its sales booked sooner. Maybe some of those discount shoppers will decide they can’t wait until the Fourth.
Perhaps more importantly, retailers have also started selling fireworks online and allowing for pickup service. In an email, Heckman confirmed to me that this is a new marketing strategy for the industry; before the pandemic, online sales were rare. (One cannot, after all, drop a bomb in the mail.) Steve Pelkey is the owner and CEO of Atlas Fireworks, a family-owned company that produces large fireworks events, including for the New England Patriots, and also operates four retail locations in New Hampshire. Atlas began offering online sales during the pandemic, and retail sales are currently up 28 percent from 2019. Pelkey estimates that online sales now account for 24 percent of Atlas’ gross retail revenue. These online sales may be helping retailers to reach new customers—perhaps even ones who live in cities in Massachusetts, the lone state that still outlaws the sale of all types of fireworks.
People are looking for ways to entertain themselves, and the fireworks industry is doing everything it can to boost retail sales, especially as other parts of its business suffer catastrophic losses. This appears to be a case of motivated buyers meeting motivated sellers. This summer, every day is Independence Day.